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Study Tips

What is a MOOC and how do they work?

Massive Open Online Courses offer university-level tuition online to anyone who's keen (minus the tuition fees). But are they worth your time?

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With MOOCs (or Massive Open Online Courses), you can broaden your knowledge, dabble in new fields and even improve your career prospects.

Always had an interest in economics, programming, literature or something else but aren't sure if it's for you? A MOOC in the subject could be the perfect opportunity to dip your toe in and try it out without too much commitment.

We've got everything you need to know about these open-access courses. Read on to work out if they're right for you.

What is a MOOC?

The acronym 'MOOC' stands for Massive Open Online Course. It refers to short university-level courses offered online via distance learning. Most of the time, they're free.

Instead of having lectures and seminars every day, MOOCs are taught entirely online. Contact with lecturers is made by email and group discussions take place over forums.

Coursework and assessment work differently depending on the course you take and which university is offering the program. Generally, you'll be looking at a few weeks per course which will require a couple of hours each week.

Accessible education

The main aim of these courses is to make university-level knowledge accessible to anyone who wants to learn, regardless of their location or personal circumstances.

MOOCs shouldn't be confused with Open University courses, which are fully accredited university degrees offered online for students who want to study in their own time. These will involve years of commitment and degree-level tuition fees, too.

MOOCs provide high-quality teaching from some of the most respected professors and at the world's best universities, but they require very little commitment and have no entry requirements.

For example, Oxford University stepped into the distance learning world by offering its first MOOC in 2017. The course focuses on understanding the economy and is taught by Sir Paul Collier, professor of economics and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government.

We've got more info about the University of Oxford's MOOC in our guide.

Will MOOCs give you a qualification?

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Credit: Mallmo – Shutterstock

Most MOOCs won't offer a formal qualification once you've completed the course, but you can pay around £50 – £70 for a certificate if you'd like proof.

FutureLearn is the UK's biggest MOOC provider, offering countless free short courses in a range of subjects. You'll have to pay to receive a certificate at the end, but you can also opt for their Unlimited plan. This costs around £200 per year and allows you to get a certificate for hundreds of short courses.

Are MOOCs free?

You can get full access to MOOCs for free. However, if you would like an accredited qualification from them, you will likely have to pay.

But it's not just about qualifications. Free courses can improve your career prospects and look great on your CV.

Having done extra online courses demonstrates to future employers that you have a genuine desire to learn and broaden your knowledge.

Some universities have also started taking their first steps towards offering accredited degrees online (or at least partially).

However, it's worth knowing that, while access to all the course materials and the online tuition itself is free of charge, you do need to pass each block and pay for a certificate to progress on to the degree at the end of it.

Are MOOCs worth it?

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Credit: NBC

Online learning isn't for everyone, and MOOCs tend to be most popular among graduates seeking to top up their knowledge on a subject to progress in their careers.

However, that's not to say that current students can't benefit from them. If your CV is looking a bit thin, having some extracurricular learning on there to show you're actively keen to learn outside of your field will impress graduate employers.

To keep things simple, here's a list of some of the reasons you might want to give it a try (and reasons why MOOCs might not be for you).

Reasons to do a MOOC

Unsure whether MOOC education is right for you? We recommend you try a Massive Open Online Course if you:

Reasons not to do a MOOC

We would not recommend you do a MOOC if you:

  • Are looking for a tangible reward (i.e. qualification) out of it, unless you're willing to pay
  • Struggle to self-motivate and usually need prompting to meet deadlines (drop-out rates can be very high)
  • Struggle with computers – as the entire course is done online, a certain level of computer literacy is crucial
  • Feel you need one-on-one contact with tutors and classmates – all contact is done online, and you'll get much less contact with tutors.

Where to find the best MOOC courses

There are thousands of MOOCs available online from all around the world. While the majority of courses have been US-based in the past, the launch of FutureLearn in 2012 has seen universities across the UK getting involved in online learning too.

These are the best places to find MOOCs:

  • FutureLearn Originally started by the Open University, and now working with over 260 universities, as well as various world-renowned institutions such as the British Library and UNESCO
  • Coursera One of the largest US-based MOOC providers, offering hundreds of free online courses from almost 300 partners around the world
  • EdX A not-for-profit provider created by MIT and Harvard University, with over 42 million users and more than 3,600 courses.

Interested in other kinds of free online courses? Our guide covers our top picks.

Katie Paterson

WRITTEN BY Katie Paterson

Katie Paterson is an accomplished writer from Glasgow. She studied English Literature at the University of Strathclyde, then went on to do a Research Masters in Literature at the University of Amsterdam. As Lead Editor for Save the Student, Katie has covered topics from career tips to ways to make money go further as a student.
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